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Study Suggests Free Will Is An Illusion (iflscience.com) 386

An anonymous reader quotes a report from IFLScience: A new paper published in the journal Psychological Science has attempted to define and investigate the subject of free will. By asking participants to anticipate when they thought a specific color of circle would appear before them, something determined completely by chance, the researchers found that their predictions were more accurate when they had only a fraction of a second to guess than when they had more time. The participants subconsciously perceived the color change as it happened prior to making their mental choice, even though they always thought they made their prediction before the change occurred. They were getting the answers right because they already knew the answer. "Our minds may be rewriting history," Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The implication here is that when it comes to very short time scales, even before we think we've made a conscious choice, our mind has already subconsciously decided for us, and free will is more of an illusion than we think.
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Study Suggests Free Will Is An Illusion

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  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:06AM (#52043003)
    on a subscription model.
  • Bullshit conclusion (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:15AM (#52043025)

    The conclusion is bullshit. Free will isn't an illusion and life isn't a game that plays us. (Anyone catch the reference there?)

    On short time scales, reaction time is probably faster if the brain does some processing in advance. The decision is already made so the mental processing need not be done instantly and, instead, can just be acted upon almost right away.

    At longer time scales, though, there probably is free will. There's no clear advantage to intelligence if free will doesn't exist to make use of it.

    Maybe at short time scales, free will doesn't really exist. Instincts and reflexes take over, though these can be conditioned. At longer time scales, though, free will surely does exist. The brain has more than one way of processing information and deciding on a course of action.

    • by Maritz ( 1829006 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @07:06AM (#52043193)
      The problem is how to define 'free will'. You're certainly free to choose your choice... I think anyone who suggests that the output is completely divorced from the input is a bit of a wacko. At the same time, I think our available degrees of freedom are so large that you might as well just take it that we have a good approximation of free will. Makes the question almost boring to be honest. Who cares if we have true philosophical free will? Isn't that the same as arguing that the future does not depend on the past, in the context of humanity but in no other context?
      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        I think the only appropriate thing for me to say is, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

        • Good insight there, Neil.
        • "I will choose a bathysphere. I will choose free will."

          -Sung by teenager me who didn't know the words, or get canadian accents.

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            I just kind of mumbled for that section and hoped that my lips moved in what appeared to be the right pattern for the others who were singing along. I still do that. ;-)

            Well, I guess that's not really true. I've since learned the words but I had to look them up at some point. I think they might have been with the tab in one of the guitar magazines? No, no I am not good enough to play it.

      • Yes, the definition if free will is very much the issue. People mostly believe, especially when using the word "decision", that the conscious mind is making decisions. But recent science says that we do not make conscious decisions. They are made subconsciously, with the conscious merely inventing post-hoc plausible explanations for why that decision has been made, if called on to do so.

        For sure we are reacting to inputs, and getting an output, and the illusion is that the conscious mind that is deciding th

    • Free Willy was just story, it wasn't real.
    • by Sique ( 173459 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @08:09AM (#52043473) Homepage
      I often compare the inherent error in the "free will is an illusion" conclusion with a normal decision by committee or an election. We often have a pretty good idea of the result of an election before the actual election happens, but we don't see it as a problem of the free will of the electorate. They still can vote how they want. We often have an idea how a judge will rule in court way before the judge actually presents the ruling, but we wouldn't conclude that the judge doesn't have a free will. We also know that often something is decided early on, but it takes some time until the decision is communicated to the outside just because we want to check, look for possible errors or wait for a result not in yet (and which could flip the decision).

      So yes, we often have pretty good predictors of the outcome of a decision, and it often takes some time for a decision to finalize much later than the predictors already show the outcome, but that doesn't mean the decision wasn't free. And yes, if we don't wait for the decision to finalize, but take the preliminary result for the final result, we could speed up the process considerably.

      • by thaylin ( 555395 )

        Except in all those cases we are looking at the prior behaviors of the individuals to predict those things. What questions were asked, what were the past patterns.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @08:10AM (#52043479)

      Or to put it differently: Free will may well require thinking about things for a while, while reflex-like fast decisions are just that. Just as most sane people would probably have expected anyways.

    • Agree. We already knew that knee-jerk reaction time (literally and figuratively) was too fast for congnition to play any real role. This study adds absolutely nothing to that debate. The reporter's characterization of the study's conclusions is entirely specious.

      But then that's what modern reporters do.

    • I hope so. The implication of the implication isn't nice to think about. If you're a machine, and proven to be so, how long before you're treated as one and justifiably so?

      On the other hand, perhaps the key to ending all mental suffering is to break the illusion. Why continue to be concerned about your happiness and satisfaction in life when you're just a robot? Freedom from mental anguish could be as simple as taking a pill to lift the illusion, rather than some lofty goal like self-actualization. Then you

      • by thaylin ( 555395 )

        We already have been and are treated like a machine. If free will exists then why is it so easy to reprogram us, stockholm, and the like.

    • by thaylin ( 555395 )

      A monkey with no free will and a high intelligence is still going to do better than a monkey with a low intelligence, because the capacity to aquire and apply knowledge and skills has nothing to do with free will, but learned behaviors.

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      "The conclusion is bullshit. Free will isn't an illusion "

      Someone was destined to say that.
    • by TWX ( 665546 )

      The conclusion is bullshit. Free will isn't an illusion and life isn't a game that plays us. (Anyone catch the reference there?)

      On short time scales, reaction time is probably faster if the brain does some processing in advance. The decision is already made so the mental processing need not be done instantly and, instead, can just be acted upon almost right away.

      The thing I took, at least from the article summary, is that they were given a particular test, and depending on how their mechanistic senses worked, they did better when answering closer to the event because the brain is able to act on sensory input before consciousness necessarily kicks-in.

      I don't really see how that's any different than anticipating a pothole while walking, or attempting to block a suckerpunch, or other forms of recognition of pending events based on low-level processing of how the bo

  • by darthsilun ( 3993753 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:16AM (#52043031)
    I suggest reading "Sleight of Mind." Magicians have known for millennia how to force certain outcomes.

    (I have no connection to book or the authors, other than having read the book. It's a bit pretentious at times, but otherwise rather insightful.)
    • I suggest reading "Sleight of Mind." Magicians have known for millennia how to force certain outcomes.

      (I have no connection to book or the authors, other than having read the book. It's a bit pretentious at times, but otherwise rather insightful.)

      Pollsters make a living out of it. Simply the way questions are phrased and the words used can influence the outcome in the direction that the poll designer, or the person paying them, wants.

  • I swear I already read about this study years ago.

    But right now I can't find the source.

    (This is not a meta-post joke. I really remember the "few milliseconds before illusion of prediction" topic being studied.)

  • Yeah, right (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:20AM (#52043039)

    Because picking colors and circles in a few fractions of a second is the same as deciding to rob a bank.

    • Am I missing something, or is the summary missing something?

      By asking participants to anticipate when they thought a specific color of circle would appear before them, something determined completely by chance, the researchers found that their predictions were more accurate when they had only a fraction of a second to guess than when they had more time.

      This makes it sound like they discovered that precognition is real, not that free will is an illusion.

  • Or people feel less guilty about lying if they hadn't fully decided on their prediction yet.

  • by james_gnz ( 663440 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:25AM (#52043059)

    The paper (or at least its abstract) doesn't seem to mention "free will". This seems to be a term introduced by reports of the paper. The paper itself seems to refer to choices that are made consciously as opposed to those that aren't (and are therefore made subconsciously). I think the term "free will" confuses the issue, because it's used in different ways.

    In practical usage it more or less refers to choices that are made without being controlled by an outside agent (e.g. not choices made under duress), and in philosophical usage it more or less refers to "choices" that are made without any cause (although I don't think this idea makes sense).

    • by Jesrad ( 716567 )

      Yup the paper is about agentivity. At most the research suggests that "free will" happens outside of conscious thought.

    • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @07:04AM (#52043191)
      Subjects were given a very quick preview of the color before they had to pick one. The experiment looks more like subliminal advertising; I suppose the subjects thought they were guessing when in fact they had been tricked into selecting the correct answer without realizing their choice had been biased (hence what they thought was a free will choice wasn't). Not exactly groundbreaking science.
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Bingo. It doesn't matter if our choices are entirely predictable (Newtonian physics) or random (quantum physics) or some kind of supernatural "soul" makes them. What is important is that the thing known as a person is free to choose.

      That's really a philosophical question. Clearly we are affected by many outside influences. Once I started learning Japanese I realized how restricted our thought patterns are by language and the way things are framed. Does a baby who knows almost nothing have free will, and the

    • It has been long known that there is a delay between conscious thought and awareness of conscious thought. This has shit-all to do with the free will debate, and science journalists (or whatever you want to call them) should be ashamed for conflating the two issues to make headlines.

      It's related to the stopped escalator phenomenon. If you ever step on a broken escalator, you'll usually experience a moment of vertigo as your brain anticipates you moving forward, and then you realize you didn't. This is the s

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      In any event, the experiment wouldn't necessarily disprove free will. People have already done experiments that show that the conscious, rational part of the brain becomes engaged after it initiates an action.

      Taken altogether these experiments show
      (a) people rationalize their actions after the fact as the result of conscious decision-making.
      (b) remembered sequences of events are unreliable and thus subjective attributions of actions to conscious decision-making are unreliable.

      The most that these demonstra

  • The small sample of 25 young adult participants were asked to predict which one would randomly turn red, make a mental note of this, then wait. After one of the circles took on a crimson hue, the participants had to record via keystroke whether they had predicted correctly, incorrectly, or didnâ(TM)t have time to complete their choice.

    The journal article is paywalled, so I'm relying on the linked articles for my information.
    Why not have the participants enter their choice BEFORE the circle is disp

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:30AM (#52043087)

    Our primitive mind designed for a world where we are constantly under attack or will need to attack others, is the product of 500 millions years of evolution. Our higher brain functionally only 2 or 3 million years. So yes in term of making quick decision our primitive brain kicks in. We use it while driving, and every day living. That is why magicians are able to pull off their tricks on us. They get the primitive brain distracted on something else while they do something else. The higher human brain is much slower however it will try to process more information. Such as the question to the volunteers of this study if they want to do it or not. There is no immediate danger there is no pressure of instant response they can stand back and think about it. Factor in what rewards would they get, what are the risks, what trade offs from the action will occur. That is free will. However if someone tried to get volunteers and is a natural sales man would apply pressure on them to make a decision far more quickly. Because they will avoid them trying to think about it, they will keep their minds occupied with idle chit-chat, and implying the positive images of what will happen.
    The study shows our primitive mind makes a lot of decisions for us. But nothing about free will.

  • A non-issue (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:35AM (#52043105)

    I feel ashamed to think of all the years when I went on believing there was some distinction between predestination and free will. In fact, I'm now sure it's just a matter - once again - of us being fooled by our own language.

    Imagine the universe from a God's eye point of view. Think of it as a four-dimensional space, with one dimension being time. (Physics suggests there are probably a lot more dimensions, but this simple model is sufficient). Now when (apologies for the meaningless use of "when", as time is a dimension within the universe) God creates the universe, it is complete: it contains, in His mind, everything that will ever happen. (Please note that this mental experiment does not depend at all on the existance of God). What does this do to free will? Well, it obviously destroys it completely. Imagine the Mississippi River, which notoriously meanders and turns back on itself for hundreds of miles. It creates curves, which become oxbow lakes, and then disappear again. Do you think the river has free will? Or could all of its elaborate changes be predicted, with enough knowledge of the physics and the initial conditions? Yet maybe if you were the river, you might like to think you had free will.

    There is no contradiction here. We feel as if we have free will, yet our actions are mostly quite predictable. Ask yourself, "who is it that has free will?" Isn't it a rather old-fashioned picture that comes to mind, of a little person or imp sitting inside your head, choosing and making decisions for you? But even introspection shows (as David Hume testified) that there is no such little imp of identity. Our actions arise from the state of the whole organism from moment to moment. And if there seems to be an element of freedom, of indeterminacy, to them that may be because so very much of our thinking is unconscious.

    • My personal feeling that the whole concept of "free will" is purely a matter of philosophical perspective- entirely dependent on how you approach and define certain terms- and as such there can be no meaningful definitive answer as to whether it exists or not.

      For example, in asking do "you" (or I) have free will, what are "you" anyway? Do "you" only count as the conscious mind? If so, how can the conscious mind be "free" beyond what the running of the universe dictates, since your conscious mind *is* just
    • I feel ashamed to think of all the years when I went on believing there was some distinction between predestination and free will. In fact, I'm now sure it's just a matter - once again - of us being fooled by our own language.

      Imagine the universe from a God's eye point of view. Think of it as a four-dimensional space, with one dimension being time. (Physics suggests there are probably a lot more dimensions, but this simple model is sufficient). Now when (apologies for the meaningless use of "when", as time is a dimension within the universe) God creates the universe, it is complete: it contains, in His mind, everything that will ever happen. (Please note that this mental experiment does not depend at all on the existance of God). What does this do to free will? Well, it obviously destroys it completely. Imagine the Mississippi River, which notoriously meanders and turns back on itself for hundreds of miles. It creates curves, which become oxbow lakes, and then disappear again. Do you think the river has free will? Or could all of its elaborate changes be predicted, with enough knowledge of the physics and the initial conditions? Yet maybe if you were the river, you might like to think you had free will.

      There is no contradiction here. We feel as if we have free will, yet our actions are mostly quite predictable. Ask yourself, "who is it that has free will?" Isn't it a rather old-fashioned picture that comes to mind, of a little person or imp sitting inside your head, choosing and making decisions for you? But even introspection shows (as David Hume testified) that there is no such little imp of identity. Our actions arise from the state of the whole organism from moment to moment. And if there seems to be an element of freedom, of indeterminacy, to them that may be because so very much of our thinking is unconscious.

      I predict a very similar model, in that humans are ultimately made up of atoms, the building block of our universe. If you had the unlimited ability to see and know everything, then you would in theory be able to calculate each and every pulse of electricity to the brain, each and every counterpulse. In this manner, it would be possible for an omnipotent being to predict every single action, and so of course wouldn't have free will. However, what if such a being doesn't exist? If the universe truly is just

      • A computer (CPU) follows rules. Can you write a computer program that has free will, ie, a program that you are unable to decide the outcome of before hand, even if you had an identical computer to test it out on first and gave it 100% identical inputs?

        Similarly, the universe follows rules.

  • This strikes me not so much about studying "free will" than our inability to operate on extremely small timescales.

    Second of all, I would be very reticent to accept into general principle the idea that there is no free will.)

    • If free will is an an illusion, then so be it (and I will have been fated to deny such a reality anyway, so stop bugging me)
    • But if free will is in fact reality, we have two main choices
      1. We can choose to assert that free will exists, and continue exercising it
      2. We can choose to assert tha
  • I find it puzzling that Christians in particular seem to be irritated by the idea of a lack of free will.
    Isn't it conflictive to believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful deity while at the same believing in freedom of choice?
    More than once I've seen a religious person irritated when the notion of determinism came up in a discussion.
    What is the connection there?

    • Because if you don't have free will, and go about committing murder, why should that individual go to Hell? After all, God created this individuals path from start to finish, so He could have prevented the damned outcome. Yes?

      It's been explained to me like this: God, the all mighty, both created the Universe and will be there to its ostensible end. He knows everything at any moment, and at any time; he transcends space/time. So at the individual level, it's a given you are born and will die at some point. E

    • I find it puzzling that Christians in particular seem to be irritated by the idea of a lack of free will.
      Isn't it conflictive to believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful deity while at the same believing in freedom of choice?
      More than once I've seen a religious person irritated when the notion of determinism came up in a discussion.
      What is the connection there?

      Depends on what you mean by free will. Martin Luther for instance said that we have free will in the things below us, but not in the things above us. For instance, you are free to choose if you're going to eat an apple or an orange, take one job instead of another, etc., but you don't have free will in regard to your salvation. That is predetermined by God.

    • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
      Isn't it conflictive to believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful deity while at the same believing in freedom of choice?

      No. "All-powerful" implies being able to chose not to know something (for now. Okay, this is a bit weird, since "all-powerful" also implies existing outside time and, consequently, outside of causality, which requires time), and being able to chose to leave something to completely and perfectly random chance.

  • The study shows that our brain decides before this is reflected in the conscious mind. However, the subconscious process are part of the thought process. This does not mean that this process cannot be influenced and manipulated. Of course it can, but that is not an argument against free will. The biggest problem with the concluding sentence of the abstract is that they use the term free will, which has many different definition that are not compatible. If you think free will is the objective and self-motiva

    • Is it even showing a decision? I don't see any elements of choice in the study, just visual information being processed before it's presented to the conscious mind. They seem to have found a way to exploit the delay between the arrival of raw visual data and its phenomenological representation. How that is related to free will seems to be based only on flawed reasoning.
      • by prefec2 ( 875483 )

        Correct. Their hypothesis behind their reasoning is that the observed pattern imply that a decision is made before the conscious mind makes that determination. Therefore, the brain is manipulated into a decision subconsciously. They then conclude, because you can do this, the will can be manipulated and therefore there is no free will. As you pointed out this is flawed reasoning or they have a completely different definition of free will. However, that would make the statement meaningless. Lets say I define

  • Free will is just an illusion? That is what they WANT you to think.

  • Subject is wrong: If you make a definition of something everybody knows what is, and based on that definition comes to the conclusion it doesn't exist. It means your definition is wrong. Free will means choice, it doesn't mean random or unpredictable.

    But on an another topic: The actual story. Yes we are often make up explaination after the fact, and by often I mean most of the time. The human brain is a parallel machine, most of it is just guessing what the rest is doing and usually after it has done it.

  • Back when I was in seventh grade I was greatly impressed by one of the bollywood song sequence. It was during the heights of Apollo program and the dream sequence had a "moon" set, with craters and mountains, and the ageing hero cavorting with a girl young enough to be his grand daughter... But thought that was a large impressive set they built for that song. Never saw the movie or the sequence for 40 years, but have heard the song many hundred times. Then... youtube came along. [youtube.com]Saw the song, and felt a g
    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Memories are certainly affected by perception.

      The difference is that if you're asked BEFOREHAND to memorise in detail, you'll remember most of the those horrible details too. Literally, the more attention you pay and the more consciously you do so at the outset, the more accurate your memories and - thus - the more accurate your assessment of something when you later recall it.

      The problem is that when you stumble upon a special thing, you don't remember to memorise details, but you allow yourself to be abs

  • At most it suggests that the visual processing center filters information presented to the conscious mind, which we already knew. This is a study of phenomenology, not free will.
  • don't tell Rush.
  • Of course there is no free will. Your brain is made out of chemicals those chemicals follow specific laws. This means that it is would be possible to simulate your brain if you had a big enough computer. So if you can simulate your brain and can predict what your decision would be then you don't have any free will.

    • by kbg ( 241421 )

      Another problem with free will is that nobody can explain what that concept actually is. Let's take an example. Let's say you have two identical twin brothers and you know for a fact that one of the brothers has free will but the other one doesn't. You have access to all the tests, tools, medical equipment and science in the whole world at your fingertips and you can examine these brothers in smallest details at the molecular level. How could you find out which one is which? You can't because it is impossib

  • Automatons can have illusions!
  • From the abstract... Here, we explore the possibility that choices can seem to occur before they are actually made...The experience of choice is susceptible to “postdictive” influence and that people may systematically overestimate the role that consciousness plays in their chosen behavior.

    Free will is too heavy a term for what's at play here. These methods of study simply show that our freedom of choice does not mean that we choose at random. And that's been studied and experimented with [google.com], debated by philosophers throughout human history [behavior.org], and has popped up even on Slashdot [slashdot.org]. As my first source clearly says, "One of the worst ways to generate 'random' numbers is to ask somebody to write down some numbers 'at random'. It won't work...The human mind is built for patterns; it doesn't like boring repititions." Just because we have the freedom to choose, a.k.a. "free will," does not guarantee our choices is random.

    This experiment just shows that, when we aren't given enough time for the "consciousness circuitry" within our minds to make its choice, other circuitry in our minds take over and make for some interesting results. Maybe, instead of debating whether or not free will exists, we should instead attempt to analyze what cranial pathways are taking over. I'd be very interested to know what portions of the mind take over when it's forced to make split-second decisions, then measure whether or not these decisions are more accurate, or in what ways, compared to the "I've had time to think about it, and I've concluded..." choices.

    • It's a terrible experiment, anyway. "Choosing" the color (which is actually "guessing" - different concept) doesn't invoke the idea of "free will", anyway. They're trying to guess something random and inconsequential, and there's no actual basis for the decision. It would be akin to asking them to pick a number between 1 and 10 and then seeing how "good" they are - there's no way to actually guess it and nobody is going to actually be better than someone else.

      The real question is given an actual meaningfu

  • some scientists will say / "conclude" anything, anything at all under the sun, to avoid concluding that things like clairvoyance and telepathy exist.

  • It seems that the conclusion is related to the Libet experiments.
    In this experiments, participants are asked to mark the time they decide to take an simple action (like pushing a button) then perform said action. Using ECG, he discovered that the motor cortex "prepared" the movement about 300ms before the recorded time of the decision.
    It implied that the decision wasn't conscious, suggesting that free will is an illusion.
    Needless to say, this conclusion is controversial.

  • by mwfischer ( 1919758 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @08:31AM (#52043585) Journal

    Nothing to see here folks.

  • The mind naturally has many systems and sub-components. This makes the mind is a complex multidimensional system, and it is easy to detect automatic decision making mechanisms.

    The fact of automated response systems does not disprove freewill, no more than the fact of automated computer mechanisms (and bots, etc) disproves the existence of users on the internet (and elsewhere)

    Of course, some day, the internet will be filled with AI Bots spamming each other for the fun and profit, and it will be bots an
  • is if a machine that can predict my actions is invented, I could always incorporate that machine into my decision making process, restoring my "free will" ("oh, I was about to decide that? On second thought, maybe not").

    Consequently, free will seems to be more of an emergent property of being able to continuously and flexibly augment and use tools for our thought processes than some kind of "magic stuff" that makes our decisions appear truly mystical and random.
  • A split second before you did
  • And no references to The Matrix: Reloaded.

  • At least these "studies" are now using words appropriate to the level of science being done: "Suggests".
  • Ever been in an accident? Of course our brains re-write history and try and make sense of the sense impressions given to them. Of course on a second by second basis the process is messy and we are not necessarily the best reporters of what is going on in our heads. On the shortest time scales, there is little to no free will, as there is literally no time to think.

    By the way, free will is about the ability to make choices. Conscious versus subconscious is about how the choices are made.

  • nothing new, move along [wikipedia.org]

    ... but if somebody did a scientific study, which has a conclusion, then I'm convinced I don't exist ...

  • Just try holding your breath for ten minutes, and you'll realize that your supposed free will doesn't even have full control over your voluntary muscles.
  • After years of trying to read various papers, articles, take a class in philosophy, I still don't grasp what free will is. The best I have come up with is a term that people use to assert individual responsibility and accomplishments, such that they can justify taking pride in what they do and demonize actions of people they hate.

  • The only thing about the study that suggests that freewill is an illusion, is that despite the data suporting the opposite the published conclusion is that one has no free will, as if the author were fated to come to such a conclusion.

    The data appears to show that when given time for the conscious mind to interfere, the choices made were indeed different than the automatic responses.

  • of the article.

    They were not testing free will, they were testing our ability to cheat faster than our mind was capable of realizing we were cheating.

    Free will itself is a complex, philosophical-religious concept that is not easily subject to testing, any more than god is subject to testing.

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